State Hires Special Consultant to Probe Utilities’ Response to Hurricane Irene

Tom Johnson | October 14, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Of special interest: how utilities planned, restored power, and communicated with local officials and customers

The state is broadening its investigation into how New Jersey’s four electric utilities handled events in the wake of Hurricane Irene, a storm that left 1.8 million people without power at one point or another.

Acting on a recommendation from staff, the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) authorized the hiring of a special consultant to analyze how the utilities planned, executed restoration efforts, and communicated with local officials and their customers during the days following the storm — which has been described by one official as the worst weather-related event for electric utilities in the state’s history.

The decision to retain a consultant comes even before the agency has concluded a series of public hearings on the utilities’ response to the storm, which left tens of thousands of their customers without power for up to a week, and some, for as long as nine days.

Most of the public ire during the hearings to date has been targeted at the state’s second largest utility, Jersey Central Power & Light. Two-thirds of its more than 1 million customers lost power at some point during the storm.

Public Anger

The hearings, ordered by Gov. Chris Christie in the wake of widespread anger about how long it took utilities to bring the lights back on could lead to regulatory changes and recommendations to adopt so-called standardized best practices to prevent the same problems from occurring during future storms.

Hurricane Irene was the first storm of its kind to make landfall in New Jersey since 1904, a fact that caused significant and widespread damage throughout JCP&L’s 13-county territory. The company had more than 4,500 utility and contractors working on restoring service; 70 percent of nearly 700,000 customers had their power back within 48 hours.

Beyond living without electricity for several days, customers and local officials have been particularly critical of the utility for its lackluster communication with elected officials and ratepayers, leaving both in the dark about when and where power would be restored.

Best Practices

Following the completion of the special consultant’s report, the agency is expected to come up with a list of best practices that the utilities could be required to follow in weather-related events, according to officials. Jim Giulano, director of the Division of Reliability and Security, said his staff already is undertaking an internal review to decide what short-term steps could be taken to improve communication with local officials and residents.

The cost of the outside consultant, which has not yet been determined, will be borne by the utilities, a practice the board has adopted in the past to avoid having ratepayers absorb the expense. At the height of Hurricane Irene, more than 1 million electric customers were without power, according to state officials.

Yesterday, the board also approved the hiring of still another outside consultant, Pat Downes, to investigate JCP&L’s problems in Morristown where there is a history of underground fires and exploding manholes. These problems predate Hurricane Irene.

Downes is no stranger to JCP&L. A longtime utility executive, Downes was retained by the board in 2003 to help JCP&L improve its operations in the wake of a slow response to a string of outages at the Jersey Shore during the Fourth of July. The investigation led the BPU to temporarily reduce the utility’s rate of return after the probe found flaws in its performance.

Ron Morano, a spokesman for the utility, said the company was committed to working with the agency on the review and would cooperate fully with Downes. The company will bear the cost of Downes’ work.